The literary works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe have long been inspiration for composers, and his poem Der Zauberlehrling, based on a story by Greek poet Lucian, is no exception. French composer Paul Dukas turned to the poem when composing his symphonic scherzo L'Apprenti Sorcier. Written at roughly the same time as another piece based on German literature, Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel, and it's no surprise that the two are similar in style.
The music (and the original narrative) tell the timeless story of a sorcerer's young apprentice who does not understand why physical labor should be required when magic is available. Told to fetch water for the house, he waits until his master is away, then uses spells to animate a broom and order it to carry the water in for him. Unfortunately, his knowledge of magic is woefully incomplete, and he cannot make the broom stop when the task is completed. The basin overflows, and he desperately tries to stop the broom by chopping it in two with an axe. Instead of ending the fiasco, he manages to create two slaves, both intent on carrying in bucket after bucket of water. He desperately calls for help just as he is about to drown, and his master returns to set the scene right with a few magical words. Peace is returned, and the apprentice learns the valuable lesson that he should not meddle with magic he does not fully understand.
Dukas's scherzo premiered in Paris in 1897, and swiftly became an audience favorite. As time passed, its popularity faded. The poems of Goethe would have been well known to 19th century audiences, but the same cannot be assumed for more modern listeners. Walt Disney managed to bring the scherzo back into the public eye in 1940 with the release of Fantasia. Among the classical works he drew together was L'Apprenti Sorcier. Mickey Mouse plays the apprentice in the animated adaptation of the piece, which remains very true to Goethe's narrative. Natually, as the music was written to fit the story, this makes Mickey's adventure fit the music perfectly.
The ideas behind the tale are timeless: the student using incomplete knowledge to their own advantage, only to let loose forces far beyond his or her control, the endless army of "helpers" who ignore all orders to stop, the moral lesson of waiting until one's knowledge and abilities have matured before trying to use them unsupervised, etc. They have become part of modern culture, a sort of "sorcerer's apprentice meme", thanks in no small part to Disney's Fantasia. It has formed a major part of the plot of countless movies, television shows, and novels. It has even made it into The Jargon File, as the "sorcerer's apprentice mode." In fact, so popular was "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment that it became the only part of the original Fantasia to be included in Fantasia 2000.
Some people might say that adding Mickey Mouse to a great piece of classical music such as The Sorcerer's Apprentice trivializes the music. However, the Fantasia segment can serve the very valuable purpose of fueling children's interest in classical music at an early age. The very young will enjoy watching Mickey as the apprentice with the music as a background to the visuals. As they grow older, then can begin to understand that the music actually tells the story, that any music can tell a story if they simply use their imaginations. In addition, both Fantasias can help foster an enjoyment of classical music in general, something that's all too lacking in many households.
Church, John J. "A Fireproof Ariane et Barbe-Bleue." Opera World Web Site. <http://www.operaworld.com/special/ariane.html> (Novenber 26, 2002)
Pomona College Orchestra. "Dukas notes." The Pomona College Orchestra Web Site. <http://pages.pomona.edu/~elindholm/duk_sorc.htm> (November 26, 2002)
Stehle, Roy. "Paul Dukas - Sorcerer's Apprentice". Galveston Symphony Orchestra Web Site. <http://www.webitcreations.com/galvestonsymphony/composers/Dukas_Sorcerer.html>. (November 26, 2002)
Saengudomlert, Tengo (Poompat). "Dukas." Friendly Guide to Classical Music. <http://eh.mit.edu/tengo/Composers/dukas.htm> (December 4, 2002)